Eighteen inches of separation

Eighteen inches of separation

Young people die for no reason and many reasons all the same. During what years I have lived, countless friends and loved ones were taken without warning. They always are. Even when it’s real it never feels that way.

More came and went before a trip late one summer. We drove the thin sinew of highway roped around the High Country, leaving no room for error. The road unwound in the darkness past dying headlamps. A roiling fear ignited in me as we drove back from Asheville. I felt against my chest death’s cold and hollow knocking. And I experienced car crashes that could be but never were. This was a new kind of death. After two separations, I lost hope and safety and love and whatever it meant to have a home. I met an incurable rush of fear about my mortality and the indispensability of time. It dawned on me that anything could end and that everything will. Home was no longer a place to which I could return. It was a place I would have to find or make on my own.

The sickness made me nauseous once we pulled off the highway and reached solid ground.

I stood outside the car in North Carolina. Pebbled asphalt was a steady crutch underfoot and I tried to compose myself. A flood of regrets nearly toppled me. Where had all my youth gone? When had I missed the opportunity to chance into maturity and manhood? Why in place of love had I picked longing?

Was I the only one?

*   *   *

“You didn’t think to take that down?” I asked Allison while standing in her office before we left for Asheville. She had a photo of Shannon—my former classmate and haphazard lover—propped on her desk. I hadn’t thought about Shannon since the three of us were together last winter.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t think—”

I sat down, resigned, having just seen the girl (like Amy, and countless more to come) I thought maybe one day I would marry. In Shannon I once felt a deep comfort, something like home. She was an impregnable shield from the outside world whenever I was with her. I remembered one of our last visits. It was autumn in New Orleans. The sun dappled easy streets. And I roamed through town, waiting for her as the October sun shivered off trolley car tracks. The rails lassoed the city like jewelry.

I waited for her at the Old Absinthe House. Literary greatness once drank there. Around me sat Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway. The decorative marble fountains. The high windows and French Quarter architecture. Everything distracted me from my embarrassment. I’d come all this way for a girl who wanted me but would never leave her man.

Then all of a sudden, there she was, magnificent in blue jeans and a white T-shirt. She came up to the bar and hugged me and I sank into her. There was no other place I would have rather been. But we would never return to that place of comfort.

Whatever we were crumbled after a suicide ravaged her family. It left her broken, shattered into bits that another man would help her piece back together. But where she became strong, I would not. With her gone, I considered and was crushed by what could have been—the marriage and family and the home somewhere like a sanctuary—all of which already seemed so real inside my head.

Allison drove us from Boone to Thomas Wolfe’s home in Asheville. The trip filled me with panic. I did my best to look away from on-coming traffic. Sitting in the front seat I operated a brake pedal that didn’t exist. Soon I found myself standing in Wolfe’s courtyard. Rain clouds leaked like dripping faucets overhead.

Tours cost money. And I didn’t feel like shepherding around the home with an agenda not my own. Instead I wanted to sift alone through a man’s life that reflected much of how I felt inside.

A restless giant at six-foot-seven, Wolfe struggled to find a literary foothold. Failing as a playwright, he traveled often. He hopped cruise ships bound for Europe. He was a young man in search of answers to questions he could not form. I discovered Wolfe as a boy who struggled to find home and love. In this way, I found a kindred spirit—someone also in search of intention and reason. I, too, fled between residences like a winnow through an open window. I, too, felt impermanent.

On one journey, while struggling to write and publish and feel, Wolfe met the love of his life. Perhaps she was only a muse. But the fact that Aline Bernstien was 18 years his senior and married, devoted to another man, gave me hope. I drew similarities between them and my relationship with Shannon. So what if we learn to love, urge ourselves to love, only to have it stripped away? Wasn’t that half the fun? Wasn’t Shannon, in the end, just a muse? Wolfe learned what I always ignored. It’s far easier to embrace unreciprocated love. There’s comfort in expecting rejection and living in a dream without suffering a calamity twice. There’s safety in following through to nothing. That way you can see the end before it nears.

“How about the tour?” said the insufferable woman at the front counter. She tried selling me a twelve-dollar ticket to get inside Wolfe’s home. But I just wanted to be left alone.

“Hemingway’s home is free admittance,” I said, “and there are cats. DOZENS.”

“Which one? The one in Ketchum or the Keys?”

The only one with cats.

I put two dollars into the donation bin and left. Outside I thought back to a quote I’d read while walking through Wolfe’s museum. It encompassed the life of a man who said everything that I could not:

“A young man is so strong, so mad, so certain, and so lost. He has everything and is able to use nothing.”

And I was a young man who felt strong and mad and lost, made dizzy by endless questions. But instead of having everything, the volume of the world around me had been turned up a notch, and still I felt that I had nothing.

*   *   *

“Do you want me to get you ginger ale, or something?” Allison had let me into her apartment after we returned from Asheville.

I thought back to all my travels. Countless hours spent worrying about plane crashes or train derailments or car collisions. I suppose I felt a desire to experience trauma to give my life validity, to let me know that it was real. I was feeling still roiled by fear and anxiety, the irrational and crippling darkness. It made me feel alone. Where had everyone gone? What chance did I deserve? Why was I still here?

My name once meant something. Rosen, of the United States Navy in the Pacific Theater. Rosen, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Rosen, of the New York State Department of Taxation. I was Rosen, of The New York Times. But even then it held no meaning. I felt like I was misusing my life, a constant misrepresentation, a placeholder for someone better.

“No, thanks,” I told Allison. “I just need water.”

In recent months I’d taken to what I called “traveling.” But that’s a vague generalization. Business or pleasure? Neither. Visiting friends or family? No, none of that. Touring the sites and sounds and culture? Not that, either.

Before heading to North Carolina, I spent the year dodging myself. I spent time alone everywhere. The Berkshires, Chicago, Maine, Atlantic City, Atlanta, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, Providence and Boston.

In Boston, I found my way to Harvard Yard at dusk. I walked around admiring the history in limestone. The vertical ironwork. The redbrick. The trampled yet manicured lawns. But nothing seemed as good alone once I was standing still. I wished I had someone by my side. I wanted someone who would be comfortable being alone perhaps together.

“I just need a few minutes. I need to lay down,” I told Allison. Leaves shimmied across the mountain forest outside while a storm approached.

It rained throughout my time in the Blue Ridge Mountains—which I suppose is apropos of nothing, though it was the first place in my travels where I ever felt sheathed in anonymity. It was a place where I had no choice but to confront myself. Even when I traveled to the Big Easy to see Shannon, I knew I was committing to a woman while having an escape. Her man would be there always, because I assumed she knew that I would not.

But she wasn’t the only girl that I’d let down. There was another who’d helped construct a wall around me of insecurity that I needed to raze. I needed the other girl gone before I could let someone new in. Before heading south, I wrote a letter, everything you see here, and sent it to Shannon.

I hoped it would bring her back while knowing it never would. So instead I told myself I did it to help me let Shannon go and push me farther from her, everything she wanted and nothing like what I needed.

*   *   *

Hemingway believed every true story ends in death. He also believed:

“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

Maybe this is true. He also said that when two people love one another fully and completely, there can never be a happy ending. One will lose the other. And death will claim them both. There is no fairytale.

For all the miles I had travelled between the high and low countries, I still hadn’t found my way. Nor had I moved past Shannon. But that wasn’t the point.

It was the journey, the eighteen inches I managed to travel through fear and worry—that space between my languished mind and my anguished heart to realize that nothing bronze nor silver nor gold nor platinum nor love nor happiness nor death nor sadness nor triumph nor defeat nor elation nor depression could stay. Life goes on impartially, without mercy, in happy increments, even when every beginning has its end.

*   *   *

The drive south on US-1 is idyllic. Stretches of tarmac reach across more than 60 islands comprising the Keys. A byway intersects the mainland, separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. Wakeless, crystalline blue and light green water stretches for miles in all directions. Storm clouds whip lightning strikes like Morse code across splotches of charcoal sky.

I made this drive often.

Once while in college, I drove this other girl to see Hemingway’s house in Key West. Amy used to call me Hem, bought me silver flasks and whiskey and gilded copies of Papa’s work. I bought her a US-1 Mile-0 sticker for her car. We posed for a picture sitting alongside the pool in Hemingway’s backyard. I hadn’t returned since.

She’d long since trashed the sticker. Even still, I always thought there was a future for us. I never told her that if we ever had children I wanted to name the boy Milo, a tribute to our trip south.

We broke up and got together often after the trip. After graduating college. After my moving to Alaska then Georgia then New York. After her moving to Atlanta then Washington, D.C. After many road trips. We tried staying the course to wherever. Running out of fuel would only keep us together. Reaching the end was just a matter of time.

After checking in to the hotel, I walked through the heat down Duval Street. The weather reminded me much of New Orleans. Low overhanging awnings. Elaborate ironwork. Spanish revival and a motley of Colonial and Victorian flavors. Drenched in sweat by the time I reached Olivia Street, I turned down the street toward Hem’s house.

I reached the entrance with tears in my eyes and stood at the gates to the house of a man I’d only come to know through words. I realized at that moment what I’d always felt was a distant longing for love found then lost. Let them go, I said to myself. They are better off without you.

It hurt to know that as strong people or not, we can go through life with the capacity to love and endure hurt while hurting others. And yet we love without end. Maybe all I had done in seeking love was as a transient, half-committing to relationships because I was scared by what I didn’t understand, which was this: love means being present always. Then comes a home, a pineapple, a fleur de lis—signs of where true love came to be.

I paid the lady at the entrance; but I didn’t have to. I passed unseen by a man standing guard and rounded a corner. I disappeared behind a Madre tree. Red cordia sebestena tickled my neck. I crossed over a squat wooden bridge that opened to the backyard pool.

There, just off the 24-by-60-foot in-ground pool, I took a seat. Clouds darkened overhead. One of the tropical storms from the Gulf made landfall. I couldn’t help but think those pleated grey skies followed me from Asheville.

A tour guide walked a group through to the edge of the pool and spoke about Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline. Below the green shutters of the hayloft where Hem wrote, the guide looked out over the pool. He referred to it as his “constant daydream.”

When off covering the Spanish Civil War, Pauline built the pool over Hem’s boxing ring. When Hemingway returned, he said, “You’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that.” And he flung a penny at her.

A quaint tale for tourists, to be sure. The tour guide said as much. But, at the north end of the pool, embedded in the grout there still today is a penny. This was said to have taken place as Pauline tried to save her marriage. She wanted for her children a proper home, even where Hemingway was not.

Hemingway and Wolfe shared an editor in Maxwell Perkins. But the two also shared ideals. They were once young men who embraced the urge to run and in doing so died a thousand deaths. Restless men of literary wit, they spent their lives grappling with loss and love and boyhood. Both tried to escape themselves and the many worlds they each inhabited until it killed them both equally and impartially.

It killed them because they each wended through life surrounding themselves in loss and death and in doing so forgot to love. Given their internal grappling, how could one expect them to? Maybe I’d conditioned myself to loss by default. Maybe it was better feeling forever estranged. But I did not want to think that was true.

Just then, the skies gradually lost light. It started to rain the moment I began to cry. The thought of having a home and loosing it terrified me. The rain came down heavy. Lightning flashed, thunder struck. Overhead a breeze stirred commotion in the trees—a couple of squirrels seeking shelter together—while a family posed together at the water’s edge, the lot giggling as their clothes soaked through.

To look at this family was to understand life in stride. No matter what heavens and hells they had and would live through, they embodied everything toward which I could strive: a moment of verve and pleasure, frozen in time and shared with those you cherish, which not to capture would be like death. There was happiness under those trees and all at once I felt relieved. That feeling was all I could ever demand of life, which I envisioned as a tapestry of relinquished joys we reserve for use again later.

I backed away, slinked out of view, and hid myself away. That moment was theirs. Mine would come some day.

Kenneth R. Rosen works and writes for The New York Times.